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JCRC Column: Sharing Our Democracy

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By David Cohen
Director – Jewish Community Relations
Jewish Community Federation of Richmond

With our recent inauguration just behind us, and the images and shock that we are left with from Jan. 6, one phrase among all the speeches and commentary stood out to me more than others. It was a description of something larger than we are dealing with in the beginning of 2021, but something very relevant to why the Jewish community may want to take note.

Our Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, spoke of people who did not want to “share the country” with others.  Those words, though kind, did feel like an apt phrase to describe what was central to the worldview of many who stormed the Capitol that day – and caused a reckoning that hits at the heart of our democracy.

In response to this attempt to derail an essential function of our transition of power, the Jewish Community Relations Committee in a public statement said in part, “The peaceful transition of power is the bedrock of our democracy … We urge all Americans to stand united in support of our democratic institutions and against the violence and divisive rhetoric that has shocked and frightened our nation.”

We spoke up about the importance of our democracy not simply because we are Americans.  We spoke up about our democratic institutions because we are Jewish and because the success of our American democracy is one of the only things that makes the United States a safe place for Jews and minorities of all kinds.  We also spoke up about misinformation and conspiracy theories we heard, because of how much that contributes to the world view of the worst elements in that crowd – elements that are profoundly anti-Semitic, anti-minority and violent.  These are people who do not want to “share” the country with others. Their vision of our democracy is not a shared vision. It is about one vision.

To be clear, most in the JCRC world sincerely do not see this as an issue of party or politics. It is an issue of extremism and the way in which a movement can co-opt a party and the will of those who do believe in a shared democracy and the core political ideologies of our two parties.

Well meaning, rational conservatives did not show up and storm the Capitol, and they did not show up and stand next to Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Well-meaning people are the people who sit next to each other at JCRC meetings, who vigorously debate their views, but who would never consider a violent attack on Congress or a march that preaches racism and exclusion to be the solution to any political problem.

There is no other group who knows more about the danger of an extremist movement co-opting a party or a government than the Jewish community. There also is no other group who has had more historical experience navigating what it means to be a minority group in a dominant culture.

In fact, history shows that the protections enshrined in our Bill of Rights emanated from the founders’ knowledge of the Jewish legal principle of Dina de-Malkhuta Dina.

Loosely translated, it means an obligation to balance the civil law with Jewish law. We knew that to survive we needed to often defer to the Civil Law.  For the founders – a group who could almost not conceive of a civil law that was NOT religious law – studying this principle was the beginning of an understanding that just maybe U.S. civil law had to account for minority groups that followed different religious practices.

So, when the Jewish community stands up for the institutions of our democracy, we do so from the lens that they are the main protections we have from the mobs of Kristallnacht.  If a movement can simply change the rules by marching ON our government and looking to harm the officials they don’t agree with, then our protections are in serious doubt. When that disagreement also stems from talk of government cabals – how can the leaders of the Jewish community not stand up and take note of the precipice on which we may be teetering.

To be clear, myths about Jews – especially when they come from or are connected to our government – are all destructive.  As we prepared for our inauguration – in the middle of our pandemic – we heard another myth from a member of congress unrelated to Jan. 6.  We heard the lie that Israel was withholding vaccines from Palestinians and that Israel therefore wished for Palestinians to die. That, plain and simple, is a blood libel that also needs to be challenged.

Though that particular canard did not result in an attack on Congress, it is part of a larger problem that results in college students being berated and conspiracy theories about Jews being perpetuated around the globe.  And that does contribute to the rise in global anti-Semitism.  Giving canards like this legitimacy does embolden others to act – no matter where their extremist hat is hung.

As a Jewish community, we stand up to all conspiracy theories and canards because all are antithetical to a stable democracy that seeks to protect all minorities.  In the public square there is freedom of speech. In the halls of government – and in academia as well – there is a responsibility to provide accurate information and to tell the truth.

As much as we disagree on some political truth – the Jewish community should at least come together when we know the truth about who we are – and who we are not.  We should continue to stand united, as we have so often, to say that OUR democracy preaches a shared vision and not one vision.

Here is to a 2021 where our shared vision takes a stronger hold – for our sake, and for the sake of our entire community.

Feel free to reach out to me at: dcohen@jewishrichmond.org.

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